Monday, August 31, 2009

Voluntary Production Adjustment

From the 1930 blog:
Editorial: The “buy-a-bale-of-cotton” movement now promoted in Georgia would be another failed attempt to artificially support a commodity by taking it off the market, as previously tried unsuccessfully with coffee, cotton, and wheat. The “success” of the earlier buy-a-bale movement in 1914 is mythical; cotton prices didn't peak until 1917 due to heavy wartime demand and short crops.

Worst Pun of the Day

From 1930 blog:

[Note: I believe Dept. of Fisheries later produced educational film with Dean Martin titled That's A Moray.] US Dept. of Agriculture has extensive department producing educational films, including T.B or not T.B., Insect Allies, That Brush Fire, and Persimmon Harvesting and Storage in China.

The EU Parliament and the Senate

From Farm Policy, a special Roger Waite piece on the next commissioner of Ag in the EU:
In that sense, it is worth recalling that the European Parliament is unlike almost any other Parliament in the world in that voting sometimes divides down Party lines (and there are now 6 big Party groups), but it also sometimes divides along national lines. [In my experience, farm policy initiatives tend to be voted along national lines.] Anyway, looking at past battles in the US Congress, we may now face additional divisions based on Committee loyalties, i.e. Ag Committee vs Budget or Environment or Development Aid Committee.
That's the way the Senate works on agriculture, although given the breadth of the farm bill it's sometimes obscured.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Free Rider Problem in Agriculture

Back before I was born farmers experimented with voluntary cooperation in limiting production. Unfortunately it's hard to sustain because of the free rider problem. Here's another instance from the 1930 blog:

Minnesota Gov. T Christianson says doubts success of Farm Board campaign to reduce wheat acreage; approach should start at the smalller cooperative units and build up rather than working top down from national agency, and should be focused on substituting other crops such as flax for wheat. Requiring farmers to restrict output of all products would be strongly opposed as it “would permanently subordinate agriculture to industry,” since farmers wouldn't be able to produce a surplus to sell abroad as industry can.

Friday, August 28, 2009

How To Mislead With Statistics

From treehugger, a Lester Brown article on how to rethink food production for a world of eight billion:
"The shrinking backlog of unused agricultural technology and the associated loss of momentum in raising cropland productivity are found worldwide. Between 1950 and 1990, world grain yield per hectare climbed by 2.1 percent a year, ensuring rapid growth in the world grain harvest. From 1990 to 2008, however, it rose only 1.3 percent annually."
This sounds like disaster in the works. What Mr. Brown doesn't do is compare the rates of increase of population and food production on the same graph. Looking at a table of world population growth, we see that in 1962 and 1963, the rate of population increase was 2.19 percent. But those were the only years in which the rate was over 2.1 percent. So between 1950 and 1990 food production outstripped population. Now since 1990 the rate of population increase has declined steadily, reaching 1.25 in 2000 and 1.11 percent this year. So, once again, the rate of food production is higher than population.

Although this part of the piece is misleading, he has an interesting discussion of various techniques, especially doublecropping, which might be possible. And he doesn't hit the locavore/organic drum at all.

Now USDA Messes With the Definition of a "Month"

Not content with defining "beef" and "veal", the USDA decides there are 13 months:

"Please be advised that 2008 13th month data has been applied to the FAS U.S. Foreign Agricultural Trade Database "
(The Foreign Ag Service has redone their statistics database here and "13th month" is a term for a catchall of corrections and late reports.
[Updated with the link I intended]

Salute to Willie Cooper

Willie's been reappointed as state director of the Lousiana FSA office. He's been SED since 1972, showing he's been able to bridge the partisan divide in LA between Dems and Reps. (Mostly SED's get dumped with a new administration.)

The press release announcing it observes he has more than 50 years service in, meaning he's basically donating his time to public service. (He really does have more brains than that might indicate, lots more.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Times Have Changed

Geezers become tiresome when they keep comparing the past and the present. I know that. But I can't resist. It's as bad when I used to smoke (2 packs+). (Why are we so proud of our vices?)

Anyhow, when I was young, the press would focus on a few metrics: cars, tons of steel, tons of coal, houses. Those were the measures of how well the economy was going and where the US stood compared to the Soviets.

So this figure surprised me:
Currently,85,000 people in the United States are employed by the wind industry; Slightly more than the 81,000 in the United States working as coal miners.

Maybe We Aren't Bigger in the Rear?

The 1930 blog reports this item:
Changes in women's dress styles have enabled Princeton to reduce width of stadium seats from 19 inches to 17.5, allowing 6,000 more seats in stadium.
Found this bit Googling:
The standard airline seat is 17.2" wide, while seat pitch ranges from 28" on some short-haul, down-and-dirty charters, to 33-34" on some planes.

The Technology Learning Curve

From the 1930 blog:

Actuarial Society of America survey reports death rate for passengers travelling on scheduled airlines is 1 in 5,000, or 200 times railroad death rate; safety increases by 63% after pilot has had 400 flight hours.

Obama's Books

Politico has a piece on how Obama's book selections have increased sales. I haven't read the Price or the Friedman (although I follow his NYT columns), have read the Haruf and the McCullough, and maybe the Pelecanos. I like Pelecanos, both because he's from DC and writes about it, and his hitch on The Wire, but I think this is his latest book. I'll get to it.

I like Haruf--one of the few serious fiction writers I've read in the last few years. And McCullough is maybe a little popular (as a failed historian I'm implied by the historians' creed to look down on any popular writer) but the man can tell a story.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

So Much for the Sunshine

All good liberals and progressives think sunshine purifies government operations. That's why they push and push for transparent governance.

We fail to remember, that our founding fathers operated in the dark, using an "Agreement of Secrecy" to cloak their treason against the king.

Asymmetric Information on the Croft

Economists talk about "asymmetric information", where the two parties to a transaction have different information. The classic case was selling a used car--where the owner knows how good it is or isn't, but the buyer can't tell.

Musings from a STonehead, the small farmer/pig grower in Scotland, runs into a case of that. He knows his product, but his potential customers often don't know pigs from pokes. As he writes:

The typical customer wants a fantasy, a lifestyle statement, a “product” that says something about them, and they want it now because that’s the fantasy of the moment.

They have an image of themselves as a “modern urban farmer”, as a “saviour of rare breeds”, as someone capturing “the good life”, of being a “modern smallholder”, of joining the ranks of “celebrity pig keepers”, showing their “anti-supermarket” credentials, and so on.

Certainly, we do have people that come to us with a genuine, practical, reality based desire to fatten a couple of pigs but they are in the minority.

But I also know from talking to the wide array of people that come to us, that the real motivation for buying pigs is to “live the dream”, just as it is for buying any other consumer item.

USDA Blog Process Needs Work

Today, I believe, is August 26. Today the USDA blog posted this. Vilsack proclaimed the community garden week August 6.

(I'd suspect this is a symptom of the fact the blog isn't integrated into the USDA institution yet. It takes a while to make such changes.)

Clayton on Musical Chairs: Lincoln as Ag Chair

Chris Clayton argues that Kennedy's death will move Harkin to chair the Health, Education, Labor committee, and Senator Lincoln to chair Agriculture.

Don't know enough to argue, but to observe this is our democracy's version of: "the king is dead, long live the king."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Why NAIS Might Seem Sensible

Today DC and MD students went back to school. Prince George's county has a trial going on--students have cards to be swiped when they board the school bus, which enables the system to track them. The broadcast reports don't say whether they also swipe the cards during the day, but I'd assume they do.

When we track our children and our pets, why not track our food?

The Voice of the Market Is Slow, Tech-Wise

I was curious about the Wall Street Journals archive, so I surfed around their site. They've not updated the browsers supported from IE 7.0 and Firefox 2.5.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

FSA and ARRA--Update 1

I blogged last week about FSA's failure to update its Recovery Act (ARRA) data on the MIDAS program. I sent a message for the Administrator through the FSA site.

Well, I've not received a final answer to the message, just a boilerplate interim message. And the MIDAS report still has a 4/28/2009 date on it. But the overview ARRA page has been updated.

Do Students Still Applaud Their Professors?

I have a memory from my college days of a handful of times when, at the conclusion of a lecture, the students broke into applause. As that was 50 years or so in the dim dark past, this may be totally inaccurate. But I think it was a combination of the structure of the lecture, coming to a climax of the argument right at the 50 minute mark; the knowledge which was evident during the course of the lecture; and the clarity, passion and enthusiasm of the delivery. I might be conflating applause for the final lecture with applause for lectures during the year, but I'm comfortable David Brion Davis (American intellectual history) and Walter LaFeber (history of foreign policy) both got applause at times.

I wonder if students still do that, or are they too blase, too wrapped up in their laptops?

I suspect maybe Brad DeLong might get applauded occasionally. If not, I hereby applaud his philosophy, as stated here, despite the obvious error in his first sentence:

This is the University of California at Berkeley, the finest public university in the world. You are all upper-middle class or upper class--if not in the size of your parents' houses in your options and expections--and thus much richer than the average taxpayer of California. Yet, even at today's reduced funding levels, the taxpayers of California are spending $10,000 a year subsidizing your education. Why are they doing this? Because they believe that if your brains get crammed full of knowledge and skills than many of you will do great things that will redound to the benefit of the state, the country, and the world. Therefore it is my business to cram your brains full of knowledge and skills. It is then your business to go out and try to do great things--and if those great things happen to involve a lot of money, remember the investment that the poorer-than-you taxpayers of California made in your education, and pass some of the resources you will earn on to your successors here at Berkeley. If I am happy in December with how the course has gone, the median grade will be a low B+. If I am mezza-mezza, the median grade will be a low B. If I am unhappy, the median grade will be a B-. If people don't do the work I assign--or if I were to assign less work--I assure you I will not be happy come December.

Five "Myths" of Healthcare

T.R. Reid, whose book on living as a journalist in Japan I recommend, has a new book coming, which he publicizes by doing an opinion piece in the Post, his former employer. His five myths:

1. It's all socialized medicine out there.
2. Overseas, care is rationed through limited choices or long lines.
3. Foreign health-care systems are inefficient, bloated bureaucracies.
4. Cost controls stifle innovation
5. Health insurance has to be cruel.

He claims to have researched Canada and many of the EU countries.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Reading the Bils

Slate has a post discussing the size of various pieces of legislation, why some are so large, and who actually reads the stuff. It's pretty good. Though I'd add the following as my two cents:
  • the 2008 farm bill was 673 pages, I think (based on a quick Google).
  • you need to distinguish between legislation starting from scratch and legislation amending existing laws.
  • The first is conceivably something a layman, a high schooler, or even a Congress person could understand. The reason is if you're outlining a brand new program (like maybe Cash for Clunkers), you have to define your terms and specify the processes. Hopefully the definitions don't rely much on pre-existing law. (For example, if Cash for Clunkers was available in "the United States", did that mean just the 50 states, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, etc.?
  • But when the legislation changes and modifies existing law, it's very difficult for even experts to understand. The reason is lawyers write it, and they somehow think it makes more sense to specify minute changes than to provide text that's understandable. I don't know why, except that's the way they've done it. Perhaps it's because they want to minimize the number of words used, perhaps because it takes so much time and money to set the text of laws in hot lead.


Somewhere, I think in the printed version of the Post this morning, I read that a significant number of the clunkers destroyed under the cash for clunkers program were old vehicles being driven by teenagers. Of course one can't assume they're now driving the new cars bought under the program; they may be driving the car the parent who is driving the new car used to drive. But either way they're significantly safer now, what with air bags front and side, etc. I don't know if we've saved 1 life, 10 lives or 100 lives, but it's a good thing.

I Don't Understand Quantum Physics and Farming

When I grew up, the planetary model of the atom was standard. Sets of electrons revolving around a nucleus of neutrons and protons, that was it. I've always been interested in science, so I've read enough to recognize some of the terminology of quantum physics. Unfortunately, as I age my capacity to absorb this stuff seems to have shrunk. I consoled myself by thinking quantum physics had little connection with my life. But this piece (actually not the original one I saw, which I think was in Scientific American, or maybe online--my memory for my reading is shrinking as well) on how quantum physics works with chlorophyll to capture energy really upsets my consolation.

Thought for the Day

Via Marginal Revolution, Hal Varian (a Google man) on management and IT:

"Back in the early days of the Web, every document had at the bottom, “Copyright 1997. Do not redistribute.” Now every document has at the bottom, “Copyright 2008. Click here to send to your friends.” So there’s already been a big revolution in how we view intellectual property."
True enough, but it's still working its way through society.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Brad DeLong Is a Conservative Old Fogey

He may be a mostly liberal economist, but when it comes to matters of academic teaching he's a stick-in-the-mud. He believes students should study on their own. Apparently his university is giving students what, back in the day when I was in high school we called a study hall period.

See his post.

Texas Is Worthless

I love writing those words.

The basis for the assertion is a paper from farmgate, where some ag economists tried to assess what farmland would be worth if there were no farm programs. They came to the conclusion Texas cropland was worth $0. Or, actually, they said 100 percent of the value of Texas cropland was due to farm programs. Economists have long said the value of farm programs was capitalized into the value of cropland. It makes sense--an owner can get higher rent for land with bases, and therefore higher sales prices too.

There's some modifications and qualifications, as you'd expect with any scholarly paper from economists, but I like my first impression: Texas is worthless.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Clayton on NAIS

From Chris Clayton's column a few days ago:
if anyone wonders why animal ID is so screwed up, it's partially because USDA gets no definitive direction from Congress on just what should happen with the program. Some members in the House and Senate want a national, mandatory program. Others say no way. So now, USDA gets potentially half the money to keep the program on some sort of life support.
That's the way legislation works. If Congress comes to agreement, fine. If Congress fudges, and papers over disagreements in order to get a piece of legisltion, the poor bureaucrat suffers.

Health Care Factoids

Right now, the government pays about half of the health care bill, insurance pays roughly a third, and around 10 percent is paid directly by patients either through things like deductibles and copays or simply when you go to a doctor, you hand over a check or cash.
Via several sources, but originally spurred on by a statement in Understanding America, private insurance covers about 15 percent of the British population.

It says to me the easy rhetoric about a proposed government takeover of health care is much too simplistic.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Agriculture Used To Be Important

From the 1930 blog:
Decline in steel production blamed on drought; with extent of crop damage still uncertain, industries dependent on farm purchasing [emphasis added] are curtailing steel buying. These include low cost autos, farm machinery, can companies. Structural steel remains strong. Some price declines seen in steel and iron products; steel down to lowest price since 1922.

Synthetic nitrate producers reach agreement; German industry expects it's first step to forming cartel to bring production in line with consumption, but initial agreement considered unsatisfactory due to short duration and lack of commitments to reduce production.
The first bit shows the importance of farming back in the 1930's. And steel was one of the basic industries then (coal and autos being others).

The second supports my doubts over Prof. Pollan's (and others) narrative of the adoption of nitrogen fertilizer (post WWII war surplus nitrates from explosives).

Broadcast Surgeries

Slate has an article explaining that with the coming of laparoscopic surgery it's very easy to broadcast surgeries live. With the old-fashioned open wound surgeries, all the hands got in the way of the camera, but with laparoscopy you just copy the feed from the camera and instruments and blast it across the web.

The article emphasizes the entertainment value because apparently such broadcasts are de rigeur at medical conferences. And they're done live, not on DVD, because it's more grabby.

There's little discussion of education, but there must be a lot of that going on in med schools. Remembering shows like St. Elsewhere (with a young Denzel) using DVD's of laparoscopic procedures have got to improve education productivity by a lot, a whole lot.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Einstein and Midnight Corn Planting

From a Joel Achenbach report on neutrino detection experiments: he justifies basic science research by pointing out Einstein's relativity theories led to Minnesota farmers being able to plant corn at midnight using GPS.

Is that a stretch? Probably not--there's a nice book on Poincare (a French physicist who came close to the theory around the turn of the century--he was dealing with the problem of timing across zones--at the end of the 19th century they'd reached the point of technology where setting simultaneous time at two different points on the globe was impossible--the time it took for an electrical signal to cross the telegraph wire (moving at the speed of light) was that long, compared to the accuracy of the time pieces. That's not clear, I know, but search for Poincare in Amazon and you'll find the book. I'm feeling lazy today.)

Maybe planting corn at midnight is the reason our farmers surprised the crop estimators by getting the crop planted so fast. That and 60-acre per hour corn planters.

Obama's in Trouble

Harshaw's law: whenever a politician is in trouble, he or she will start dissing the bureaucrats, as in Obama's pledge not to let a government bureaucrat come between the citizen and health care.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Govt Contractor Calls Rahm Anti-Christ

I thought this was a joke. Having just watched "In the Line of Fire" a couple weeks ago (Clint Eastwood as a Secret Service man trying to live down Nov 22, 1963 in Dallas) which included some extras on training, and reading a Post mag article on a class of trainees, I was particularly interested in this front page story: the Secret Service uses actors and ex-military to develop role-playing exercises in the DC area. Very good article, very reassuring training

But one of the contractors who role plays uses the idea Rahm is the Anti-Christ in his dialog with the agents. I figured that was pure imagination, but when I google it, there's over 10,000 hits.

I guess I underestimated the delusions of some people.

Chris Clayton's ACRE Prediction

He has an interesting, if very cynical, post at DTN, arguing Congress is going to catch so much heat from the losers of the ACRE bet they'll retroactively change the rules, or let Vilsack do it.

George Eliot Profits From Kindle

Thus Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution on what he's reading:
Middlemarch, by George Eliot. No other book I have tried so profits by a reread on Kindle. Given its density of information, it's simply much better when there is less on each page.
(Never thought I'd see him admit to an overload of information--he seems to drink from the fire hydrant better than most people online.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Surprising Stat--Lefties

No, I'm not talking about my fellow liberals but about baseball.

From a Times article on the scarcity of left-handed catchers in baseball:
But right-handed catchers do not seem to struggle throwing past lefties; besides, while right-handed hitters made 62 percent of major league plate appearances 50 years ago, it is now almost even, 56 percent to 44.
I know Mickey Mantle wasn't the first switch hitter in baseball, but he was the greatest one .

From a human perspective it's a lesson in how adaptable people can be, particularly when they have large financial incentives.

The High and the Low

A couple weeks ago the Post profiled a couple at the low end of the financial scale. Earlier in the week they profiled a woman moving to North Dakota for a job (and a $7500 house). Today they profile a divorcee trying to survive on $300K. (Here's a link to the series which includes black lumbermen in AL and a firm helping to ease firings.) They attract lots of comments, as you might expect.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

OO and FSA and ARRA

Was browsing the USDA's Recovery Act reports on infrastructure expenditure. I have to compliment the Office of Operations (or whatever their name is now). Back in the day I had mixed feelings about their abilities, but they've got a pretty good report out on the renovation of the 5th wing of the South Building. I think a taxpayer would have benefited by a bit more background--when the building was constructed, what's exactly wrong with it, but all in all, they did good.

ARS is so-so, RD looks good, OIG is poor (an Excel worksheet that's not very informative in my eyes).

And FSA? FSA is absolutely terrible. The link for "more" leads to a page which was last updated on April 28, 2009. I know they've had 3 administrators in the last 6 months (one acting, then Doug Caruso, then Mr. Coppess). I used their "Ask FSA" function to ask about the status. We'll see if they live up to their promises (of course, I didn't ask their support department, I asked Mr. Coppess when he was going to get it updated):

"The reference number for your question is '090815-000001'.You should receive a response by email from our support department within the next business day.If you need to add information to or cancel your question, you can do so by updating it through the questions sub area of the 'My Stuff' section of this site."
I must be feeling mean today, because I'm tempted to carry things up the line if I don't see action. One of the things that a bureaucracy needs is countervailing pressure. In other words some retired geezer with nothing better to do than fuss and nitpick.

Field Manuals Via Wikipedia

The NY Times has an article on the Army using wikipedia software to rewrite some field manuals.

(One of the biggest surprises of my brief and involuntary Army career was the extent to which the Army had manuals, though for me mostly technical manuals on generators, etc.)

I'm torn:
  • on the one hand I like the concept. Wikipedia mostly has good to excellent quality in their articles, so it is possible. I like the idea of spreading the workload and getting the input from diverse sources. (Note my prior post on the burden FSA field offices when their directives are dispersed.)
  • on the other hand, having participated in the open government experiments of OSTP, I'm dubious over the practicality. After all, Wikipedia has been around for years and survived some rough times. They've had a learning curve, and still have issues. I'm suspicious a high-level bureaucrat will see wikipedia software as a silver bullet and will kill the project when it turns out to be a long hard slog up the hill.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Dog Days of August, Not for FSA Offices

We're in the dog days, and I can see it in my RSS feeds. Where some days I've had 500 or so, these days it's mostly below 200. So while the US may not be quite France, which totally shuts down in August, people are taking vacations.

But not so for FSA workers. Those busy bees in the South Building put out 6 notices today and 12 yesterday. That's a heavy workload, both for the directives people in DC and especially for the county people, who have to sit down and digest the meaning and significance of the words.

(I remember a group studying ASCS directives back in 1973 or 4, I think it was. We heard lots from the county people, griping about the number of notices. They particularly griped about permanent instructions in notices. If you have 3 or 4 directives on a subject, the clerk (that was the approved terminology back then) would have to thread between them to come up with a consolidated understanding of the subject. Multiply one clerk by 2800 county offices (the count then) and you have lots of waste, not to mention potential errors. I wonder whether the situation has improved any.)

Understanding America, II

I'm most of the way through the book. Two points that occurred to me, which may be related:

  • there's no mention so far of Baker vs Carr, which was the big Supreme Court decision enforcing "one man, one vote". (Actually, it seems to have said the Supreme Court would have a say in reapportionment of legislative districts, with subsequent decisions actually saying one man, one vote.) Chief Justice thought these cases the most important set of decisions of his term. The significance was that both in the House of Representatives and in the State legislatures rural areas had a disproportionate representation. If memory serves, in some States the ratio was as bad as 1 to 10 (i.e, a rural voter had the same representation as 10 urban voters).
  • the end of "blue laws". Don't rely on wikipedia--it's not a good summary. These were laws restricting the times stores could open (like only Thursday night and never on Sunday). I'd also include the "fair trade" laws, which required merchants not to discount their merchandise.
These two changes, IMHO, were not only interrelated, because the rural people were more concerned with restricting the aggressive advance of commercialization and the undermining of local stores by competition from the big city, later to be Walmart and Target, but also accelerated lots of the other changes in the culture we've seen since my childhood.

I'm prompted to write this because Dirk Beauregard, at the end of his post on the Miracle Weekend in France, observes that new French laws will legitimize Sunday openings.

The World We'll Miss

Just got an email with some attachments showing old newspaper pages. The relevant articles were social notes (for genealogy, someone getting married--that sort of thing). But what was interesting was the other material on the page--the ads and the fact that in the 1930's, in a smallish PA town newspaper, they were carrying a piece on the fighting in Manchuria.

I'm constantly awed by what is available on the Internet through Google, but what isn't available and what we lose is the social context of the material.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

White House Tomatoes

At last, confirmation the White House garden produced some nice tomatoes. There's no discussion, Marian Burros in today's NYTimes is strictly concerned with the soil in the garden, (they've lowered the lead in the soil from 93 to 14ppm) but the accompanying photos show maybe 10 nice tomatoes as part of the harvest, plus Sam Kass is shown in the garden. Judging by the photo they may be planting some fall vegetable transplants, like some more lettuce. The chard (I think) in the background looks good. I guess the White House doesn't have problems with deer or with two-legged samplers--I'm sure the Secret Service is earning its pay in that regard.

It's good to see USDA outdoing the boss (Obama) in some respect--at least in transparency as regards garden harvests.

Julia Childs and the Blogger

My wife and I saw the movie yesterday and enjoyed it. For anyone who hasn't, see the movie then read this LA Times piece by the guy who asked Julia for her reaction to Julie's blog.
The critics have often dissed the Amy Adams character, saying she's self-centered and whines. That's true in the movie, but as a fellow blogger I couldn't complain, I identified with her.

Ezra Klein offers a perceptive comment:

"Grand Rapids, Mich.: What is your take on "Julie and Julia"? I thought the movie was fun, and enjoyed the scenes with Julia Child and her husband (their relationship was interesting). But I found Julie's side of the story to be less interesting and, at times, poorly constructed.

Ezra Klein: Nora Ephron did Julie Powell a disservice. Powell's story is banal in a respectable way: She's underemployed, bored, and young, and she discovers a passion. That doesn't normally merit a movie. But since it did in this case, Ephron had to give the character a conflict. And that conflict was that she was a self-absorbed child.

Take all the stuff about Julia Child "teaching" Powell so much. Child taught her nothing except how to make food. it was Powell who woke up at 5:30am to cook. Powell who kept to a grueling schedule. Powell who kept the blog updated. Powell who developed an appealing writing voice. Powell who didn't stop cooking when she was tired or busy. But in the movie, Powell just gives all credit to Julia, and the movie is constructed to make that plausible. The pity is that it isn't plausible, and it doesn't need to be. The parallel between Child and Powell isn't that they both cook. It's that they found passions. And while it's very good at explaining why Child loved French cuisine, it's too interested in explaining why Powell loved Child to explain why Powell loved writing."

Crop Reports, ACRE and FSA

Already a projection the new USDA crop estimates for corn and soybeans will cause a last minute rush at FSA offices to sign up for the ACRE program.

But later I read the projections lessen the odds of ACRE kicking into effect. It's all very confusing and makes me glad I've resolved not to waste minutes of my remaining life in trying to figure it out. Good luck to those who have to.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

NAIS and Cattle Rustlers

ABC news did a piece on cattle rustling in Oklahoma. They didn't mention NAIS, but implicitly it made the case for it.

Marketing Quotas and Catch Shares

A Grist piece reports on a consensus on to manage fisheries, which strikes me as very similar to the marketing quotas which used to apply to tobacco and peanut production:
What comes out on top, though? It comes down to effectively implementing caps on catch levels using two key tools: reducing the Total Allowable Catch and putting in place catch shares. (You can look at their table where a solution was identified in at least five of the ten fisheries, and was usually ranked an “essential” part of the solution.) This is strong stuff!
Somehow the logic is the same. You have a common resource: in the case of fish it's the stock which reproduces and grows without human input; in the case of tobacco and peanuts, it was the market, which although it was developed by humans, in the short term it's outside human control Then you have a set of players: for fish, the fishermen; for tobacco and peanuts, the growers. And you have a free-rider problem: if fishermen don't coordinate their efforts they destroy the fishery; if the growers don't coordinate they destroy the market price.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Housing Market Does Not Make Sense

Looked on Zillow for current house prices in my housing cluster (5 models, about a 20 percent spread among prices when new in early 70's). Today the range is from $130K to $318K. Presumably some of the range is foreclosure discounts and condition variations, but that's an unreal spread.

USDA Tomatoes

Give props to the people at the USDA Garden. Not only have they continued gardening through the year (something I was secretly dubious about, but was wrong) but they've updated their harvest summary. The last I checked, that's better than the White House has done. They've gotten 12 tomatoes so far (Aug. 10). I think my wife has done better, although deer and possible 2 legged bandits have decreased the harvest. I congratulate them for their cucumber harvest; we've had little or no luck with them so have given up on trying. But USDA has bunches.

Obamafoodorama posts about the late blight, claiming it hasn't hit the White House garden. But I'm still waiting for evidence the White House planted tomatoes.

You Didn't Know Me

Michael Daconta used to work for DHS. He discusses 6 hot technology trends, pouring some cooling water upon them ("fads"). However, I have to challenge this one:
3. Agile development is a programmer’s fantasy and a manager’s nightmare. In my more than 20 years of software development experience, I have never met a government program manager who is available on a daily or even weekly basis to help design an application on the fly....
Mr. Daconta, you never met me. Of course the problem is I was a frustrated programmer at heart, so the time I was spending giving input on the program was mostly time I should have been spending elsewhere, like developing my employees.

Monday, August 10, 2009

On Understanding America

Understanding America is big paperback, edited b y Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson, containing a series of essays by scholars--sort of a de Tocqueville for 2008. I'm about 150 pages in, having covered things like "the political system", "bureaucracy" "federalism" the legal and economic systems, and "political culture". A couple things:

A quote: "(On some estimates, as much as half of the measured difference in per capita income between America and the typical western European country would disappear if output were redefined to include meal preparation and similar work done at home.)" What I think this says is Americans eat out a lot more than Europeans. Because home cooking doesn't show in GDP calculations, the picture is skewed. Seems amazing to me.

The other item, also from Benjamin Friedman's chapter on economics, is just prolonged laughter at his description of the advantages of our economic system. He obviously was writing in 2007 or so and I just finished reading Fool's Gold, on the crash.

Problem With the USDA Blog

I noted the new USDA blog. It's always nice to see my former co-workers moving ahead into the sunlit upland meadows of Web 2.0. But a warning--there seems to be a glitch. If you comment on a post, as I did, and check the box to be informed of subsequent comments, as I did, you will receive the unmoderated comments, as I do, which include a bunch of spam mentioning viagra, etc.

There's no email address for the blog to notify them of this problem. One place where transparency is not a priority in the Obama administration. :-(

Prediction--Landesman Out in One Year

The NYTimes had an interview article on the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts, Mr. Landesman. Based on the contents, I confidently predict he'll be out in a year. He already shows a tin ear for politics and political realities--he's going to be a loose cannon.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

A Dose of Reality

Nothing like disease to modify one's views. Dan Barber, an entrepreneurial restaurant owner and organic farmer near NYC, has a piece in today's Times. "Late blight" has hit tomatoes hard, apparently especially, heirloom varieties. So he writes this:
"The food community has a role to play, too — by taking another look at plant-breeding programs, another major fixture of our nation’s land-grant universities, and their efforts to develop new varieties of fruits and vegetables. To many advocates of sustainability, science, when it’s applied to agriculture, is considered suspect, a violation of the slow food aesthetic. It’s a nostalgia I’m guilty of promoting as a chef when I celebrate only heirloom tomatoes on my menus. These venerable tomato varieties are indeed important to preserve, and they’re often more flavorful than conventional varieties. But in our feverish pursuit of what’s old, we can marginalize the development of what could be new."
Mr. Barber even cites the extension people at Cornell

Break Up the Nationals

The Washington Nationals baseball team has been mocked for most of the year, but today they won their eighth straight. Who knows, perhaps President Obama will be able to invite them to the White House before his term is up?

NAIS and Food Facility Listings

In my comments on National Animal Identification System I suggested APHIS might ask FSA to do as they used to do with the food and facility listings maintained in case of nuclear disaster. Little did I realize that 20 years after the end of the cold war, we're still maintaining the data. But now FSA is moving to the GIS system. See this FSA notice. I applaud the move, though I've a qualm or two about the need for the data.

The National Nightmare Is Over

National Archives has a document for each day. Today's document is Nixon's resignation letter.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Sharp Phd's

I wonder what went wrong in this quote--it can't be taken literally (from a Treehugger article on how Thai rice farmers preserve genetic diversity):
“They take into consideration [when selecting seed] a multitude of factors which vary annually, including soil type, elevation, and temperature,” according to the study done by Barbara A. Schaal, Ph.D., the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, and her colleagues at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.
How do soil type and elevation vary annually?

Our Entrepreneurial Economy

Is the pride of free marketeers everywhere. That's as compared to the bureaucracy, as described in this quote about the response to an innovative idea:

"“It was just one thing after another,” he recalled. “I don’t want to speak ill of anyone’s [agency or organizational] culture, but the bottom line is that these people are committed to death. They’re encumbered by their own bureaucracy. It’s almost as if you went to the C.D.C. and said, ‘I have a cure for the common cold,’ and they said, ‘Oh, no thanks.’ ”
Of course, those who remember I'm a liberal with a soft spot for government bureaucracy willb suspicious of those brackets. And indeed, you should be. The words inside the brackets were originally: "company or corporate" and the quote is from this NYTimes article on the problems of getting private unemployment insurance or salary gap insurance.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Great News for Chinese Feminists

BBC reports China is instituting a pension system for farmers over age 60. Why is this good for feminists--because the preference for sons is, in part, a reflection of the need for someone to continue farming. Give farmers pensions and they'll accept daughters.

On Having Tomatoes Stolen

There's reasons not to garden (thieves for one) and the deeper reasons cited in this piece (satire of reasons for not gardening as given by different schools of thought).

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Plant a Farm in an Hour

My great grandfather did pretty good accumulating land in antebellum Illinois, but I doubt he ever had 60 acres of corn. Turns out John Deere has corn planters in the field which can do that much in an hour, with a new one in the works that can do 90 acres.

That's what John Phipps means by industrial farming. And it's why we have cheap calories.

A Measure of Interconnection

From the News from 1930 blog:
By use of radio links, any Bell system phone can now connect to about 30M of world's 34.5M phones in 25 countries, including most of Europe and parts of South America and Africa, and to several ocean liners at sea. US-Europe are connected by 4 radio channels and so can have 4 simultaneous conversations.
I wouldn't expect a great expansion of phones to have occurred before 1941, so in my lifetime. we've gone from 30,000,000 to at least 3,000,000,000 (this source says there's 2.1 billion cell phones in the world now--add another 900,000,000 for land lines--my guess.)

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

How Much Does Ag Contribute to Greenhouse Gases

Ezra Klein in the Post last week used 18 percent. Today the Meat Institute wrote a letter to the editor, saying Klein was using a global figure, which didn't apply to US emissions;
The Environmental Protection Agency concluded that in 2007, only 2.8 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from animal agriculture.
Meanwhile, at farmgate, I get this:

Agriculture contributes 6.7% of the total greenhouse gases emitted by the US, but the legislation so far does not penalize agriculture.
And Tom Philpott at Grist provides a useful explanation of the discrepancy between Klein and the Meat people (different denominators, different things included) and provides this ending:

So if Boyle’s 2.8 percent figure is off the mark, what percentage of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions does actually stem from meat production? Loglisci of The Center for a Livable Future says it’s hard to pinpoint. “As far as I know, no one has crunched the numbers to determine a comparable GHG emissions number for U.S. livestock,” he writes.

Working with a Johns Hopkins researcher, Loglisci compiled some rough numbers and came out with an estimate of about 9 percent—half of the global FAO number cited by Klein, but three times the figure pushed by Boyle. “And in real numbers, not percentages, U.S. livestock production’s GHG contribution could still be the largest in the world,” Loglisci writes.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Complexity in Governmen

One of the things the right likes to do is create graphics showing the interrelationships of all the pieces of complex legislation, like health care. Fine--a picture is always good.

But here's a link to a post with a picture showing the complexity of the oversight(?) suffered by one department. No one, neither Republican nor Democrat, is pushing to revamp Congressional oversight, yet it's probably the first step to a more effective government.

Monday, August 03, 2009


Have I mentioned we have fresh tomatoes from the garden? They're 2-3 later than some years, but just as tasty. Of course, we're also feeding Bambi as well. And perhaps suffering some vandalism/theft--not sure about tha.

I Like Michael Pollan's Article!

Meryl Streep's new movie continues to get ink, as Michael Pollan uses it to set up an article on cooking in the NYTimes Mag, which is summarized as: "How American cooking became a spectator sport, and what we lost along the way."

I like it, amazingly enough. This quote:
Not that I didn’t also owe Swanson, because we also ate TV dinners, and those were pretty good, too. [Admitting to owing Julia Child for teaching his mother to cook better.]
And most of all, this quote, which should replace Pollan's famous seven word message from "in Defense of Food" with the three word motto:
“Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”
For some reason, it rings a bell with John Phipps post on music, the virtures of creating it. For both food and music, we find the things we can buy superior to those we can make.

NAIS Comments

I tried to submit NAIS comments today, but seems to be either overloaded or not working well. So, for what they're worth, my two cents:

Comments on NAIS

I grew up on a small dairy/poultry farm so I can understand some of the concerns of the small producers. As a retired bureaucrat I also see the fix APHIS finds itself in. It seems to me APHIS is stuck--there's no way to go forward on your current lines because the opposition is too vocal, too numerous, and too dug in. You can't get the participation without paying the freight; you can't get the dollars from Congress to pay the freight because you can't get a broad consensus in the field.You need something different to break the logjam.

I think there are historical analogues that can be instructive. In the 1960's USDA maintained a food and feed facility directory. In the case of a nuclear attack USDA field offices would have been responsible for inventorying what was left and coordinating its use.Thank goodness it was never put to the test.

Also in the 50's and 60's we had the fluoridation controversy and the fight over whether seatbelts should be required in cars. In both cases time has cooled the flame of conflict, particularly as the older geezers died and the new generations came along. There are some issues where that's the best you can do in the U.S.--the founding fathers didn't design the government for fast efficient action.

My suggestions:

  1. First, you need a more accurate title. "National Animal Identification System" must have been invented by a bureaucrat. It sucks. No wonder small farmers are scared of it. In the U.S. we rarely have national systems for anything, not in the sense the French or Japanese have a national education system, for example. What you have under the title "NAIS" is a typical federal mish-mash of organizations and standards which is successfully creating confusion. A better name for what you're doing might be: "Standards for Animal Identification Systems"--more descriptive and more accurate, and possibly less scary for NAIS opponents.
  2. Rely on the USDA field offices (i.e., FSA and NRCS) to create and maintain a national list of names and addresses of people and legal entities who are raising animals and the types of animals raised. There shouldn't be much additional work required, because they already should have all farmers in the Service Center Information Management system. You'd need to get animal type information added and give access to APHIS field personnel. The offices should also try to increase their efforts to give farmers their own access info.
  3. Add layers to the geographical information system (GIS) used by NRCS and FSA to reflect the addresses recorded in item 2. Ideally separate animal types by layer, so one view shows all cattle ranchers, another all sheep, etc.

The idea would be, after items 2 and 3 are complete, if there's a report of a disease occurrence in hogs, say H1N1 flu, you could display the locations of all hog farmers within a radius of 30 miles, 100 miles, or whatever and have a listing of their phone numbers and email addresses to use in making contact. Time required: minutes, leaving you 47 hours to work the list. This seems to me to be easily doable and it gives you a national quick response system with, I hope, a minimal intrusion on the concerns of the No-NAIS people.

My comments on the remaining issues: think tiers and 6 degrees of connection.

By "tiers" you apply different rules for producers the products of whose animals may be exported than those which sell to neighbors. (Just as OSHA applies different rules for large factories than small shops.) You apply different rules for animals whose birth is separated by 6 steps from death to consumption than those which only have 2 steps.

Finally, I think you may be relying too much on the idea of identifying animals for small farmers That was the only way to go back in the days of tuberculosis and brucellosis, pushing paper, and IBM punch card sorters. But these days, when schools have moved from sending letters home to parents to automated calling and tweets, you should be flexible and innovative.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Accounting of a Local Farmer

Stonehead posts a detailed account of the costs of raising pigs. Any pig farmers can check it out, but these sentences are indicative:

We do not include labour, a profit margin or taxes in the cost as we’re running a business-like “hobby” and not a business.

We aim to recover the costs of working the croft, while feeding ourselves from it and maintaining it.

If we were to run the croft as a business, the additional costs would be unrecoverable and we’d not be able to keep it on.

For Stonehead doing what one loves is reward enough for labor. It's an enviable situation to be in, if not so rewarding after hours of hard outside work dealing with some farm emergency.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

More on Banking Than on Food

Floyd Norris has an interesting piece on the revision of economic statistics in the NYTimes
"In the new treatment, it appears Americans are spending more on financial services and insurance — $823 billion a year at the current rate, or 8.2 percent of personal consumption spending — than they are on food and beverages to be consumed at home — $788 billion, or 7.9 percent."
Note the $823 billion is much more than we spend on national security. Where's William Jennings Bryan and his Cross of Gold speech?

Wince-Making Words

I didn't really need this image implanted in my mind, from a Post article on the heavy truck traffic on I-81 (Shendandoah Valley north to Harrisburg, Scranton, Binghamton, Syracuse):

"To be blunt: If you're driving a car and you have a truck in front and a truck behind and a truck passing you, it's not difficult to determine who the jelly in the sandwich is if things go bad," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.